Tracking the Fox by Rosalie Sanara Petrouske
The Poetry Box, 2023
48 pages, $14
Review by Pamela R. Anderson-Bartholet
In Tracking the Fox, Rosalie Sanara Petrouske leans deeply into her Ojibwe ancestors’ culture and customs; however, it is her relationship with her father that most significantly underpins these poems. He was the primary person who carried and passed along their shared familial history. Equally important are the ways in which he shaped her understanding of—and abiding connection to—nature and the wild creatures that inhabit our world. Today, the memory of his guidance tethers her securely as she embraces her connection to her Ojibwe/Native Indian ancestry, honoring relatives she never met while respecting her natural surroundings and being a careful steward of the land.
Yet a darkly disturbing side of Petrouske’s family history comes to light in the first poem of the collection, “The Medicine Bag”:
This is the medicine bag of my father’s people.
Here a sacred Eagle feather,
an arrowhead deep within,
a handkerchief stained with coughed-up blood.
The lean-tos in this bag,
the Island where
his family existed in winter
eating surplus beans and rice; an empty
whiskey bottle, the father who gave him
Illness. Alcoholism. Food insecurity. Child abandonment. Harsh realities continue as the poem peels away more layers by revealing that her grandmother’s name was inexplicably changed from Helene Boissoneau to Josephine Johnson, and that her father’s 14-year-old sister was raped.
How does Petrouske come to terms with generational trauma in her family and among her people? The answer rests with her father’s counterbalancing presence. There is the “lullaby he sang to me/in his native tongue” in “The Medicine Bag.” There are his teachings about woodlore and navigating by the stars or the position of the sun in “True North.” There is the safety she feels when she is a child during an “Ice Storm,” when a tree crashes on top of her family’s trailer roof. While she waits “for the cave in,” her father
tugs on boots
and pushes the door open.
Its jalousie window lets in bursts
of cold air as the panes rattle.
“Go back to sleep, dear. Everything’s okay.”
On a winter night 30 years later, another storm causes trees to fall across electrical wires, fences, and streets. But this time, she is the one who confronts the destruction before realizing that “Armageddon” has spared her family and her. Although her father had always been her “true north”—his hands the “needle of my compass”—his voice her “straight-edged arrow,” she has now become him. She is the protector. The elder. Her own true north.
This is not to say that evolving into a strong woman was an easy road to travel. “Squaw” finds Petrouske in a hometown bar when a stranger buys her a drink. He leers and suggests that she—like his bruised and submissive girlfriend—is a “squaw too.” The offensive, belittling term is intended to drag her down to his level. Rather than risking a dangerous confrontation, she—like her father before her—“denied who I was./“I’m not Indian,” I said.”
This grinning white man reminded me
of those California Gold Rush squatters,
when squaw was another label
for disrespect, rape, and verbal abuse.
He stood before me with that stupid smirk,
waiting for my thank you.
I wanted to spit at him, punch his jaw,
throw the drink in his face;
instead, I turned my back, gulped its contents,
felt the alcohol burn inside my mouth.
Does her response to this interaction make Petrouske a weaker person? No. Not at all. In that instance, her calculated decision serves a greater purpose—personal survival in the moment. The following poem, “Eating Corn Soup under the Strawberry Moon” draws attention to the deeper impulse of surviving by preserving her heritage:
Later, will be drums, sacred tobacco
offered to the night sky, along with a prayer—
I join many voices, my belly filled with soup,
and feel no hunger tonight.
Her endurance through ancestral preservation is key to her connection with her daughter. In the collection’s final poem, “Black Ash Basket,” Petrouske and her daughter weave traditional baskets, taking their places “amongst generations of Ojibwe women,/who sat in circles alongside sisters, mothers, aunts.” Although this work connects them to other indigenous women, she also emphasizes that her father’s mother is their “blood-link.” Her grandmother—who was born on the Fourth of July—whose name was changed—who died at age 42—who has no grave marker—whose children were left motherless. “Ancestral pain,” she writes, “runs deep” in her veins. But she sees a different future for her daughter and for other Ojibwe daughters and sons:
…unlike those before us,
we shall let our voices be heard,
rise to speak the rape and desecration of our pasts—
and we will weave power into our baskets,
place within them flowers, pebbles, feathers,
beads aglow with light.
Rosalie Sanara Petrouske understands the permanence and the impermanence of life, but her most powerful message is one of hope. That message—found in her poetry and surely conveyed to the students she teaches in her work as professor of English/writing at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan—is intrinsically linked to her father and the memories of walking with him through fields of native grasses, along snowy animal tracks, and down wooded paths.
Tracking the Fox—Petrouske’s fourth book (joining What We Keep and A Postcard from my Mother (both published by Finishing Line Press—2016 and 2004, respectively) and The Geisha Box (March Street Press, 1996))—was selected as the 2022 Poetry Box Chapbook Prize winner. Her poetry also has appeared in many literary journals as well as several anthologies, including 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 from Michigan State University Press. Having grown up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she was honored to be a finalist for the distinction of U.P. Poet Laureate in 2021.
Pamela R. Anderson-Bartholet is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including Widow Maker (Finishing Line Press, 2021), a chronicle of her husband’s cardiac arrests and recovery. When she is not practicing yoga, writing, or reading, you can find her hiking with her husband in Northeast Ohio, North Carolina, or other far-flung places.